The Parable of the Professor and the Rocks

The Parable of the Professor and the Rocks August 22, 2012

The professor was standing behind his desk in the lecture hall as I came in. That was odd because he usually dashed in just as class was supposed to start.

He didn’t say anything as he looked out at us—also odd—and everyone took a seat quickly. He reached under the desk and took out a clear glass jar, the gigantic kind that cafeterias get mayonnaise or pickles in. He set the jar on the desk and then reached under again and took out a box.

From the box, he took out a baseball-sized rock and carefully set it at the bottom of the jar. Then he added more until he placed one last rock in the top.

“Is this full?” he said, the first words he had spoken.

No one said anything. They seemed a little stunned.

“Everyone must vote—is it full or not? Raise your hand if you say it’s full.”

Everyone raised their hands.

He pushed the first box aside and reached underneath for another box. This one held sand. He slowly poured sand into the jar, tipping it from side to side until sand spilled onto the desk.

“Now is it full?” he said.

He waited for a bit. When the silence had become painful he reached under the desk again and pulled out a pitcher of water. Very slowly he poured in water and tapped the jar until water spilled out.

“Okay, now it’s full,” he said as he pushed the jar forward. “Now tell me: what is the lesson here?”


I finally raised my hand. “That you can always get more stuff inside?”

“A good guess, but that’s not it.”

No one else wanted to interpret this odd Zen story.

Finally he said, “The lesson is,” and then he spoke deliberately, “you would never have gotten the rocks in unless you put them in first.

And then he walked out. Class dismissed.

I don’t remember much from that Philosophy course, but I remember that.

In discussing this with friends afterwards, I concluded that the jar is your life. It can only hold so much. There are always enough low-priority issues to more than fill it up—television, time wasting, urgent but low-priority tasks at work.

But if you want to get important things done, the rocks must go in first.

(This story originally appeared in Stephen Covey’s First Things First (1996), chapter 4. Thanks to Anonymous Atheist for this tip.)

The real measure of your wealth
is how much you’d be worth if you lost all your money
— Bernard Meltzer

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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